Today marks the 30th anniversary of the first diagnosis of AIDS in the United States. The disease had been killing silently around the world since at least 1978 (much evidence suggests it had been around longer but the pieces of the puzzle started coming together in ’78).
Of course, at the time, they didn’t have a word for it. The words “gay cancer” were floated around. Later, the grotestque ‘gay-related immune deficiency’ (GRID) popped up. The more accurate, and less vilifying, AIDS was coined in 1982. By then, it had become an epidemic, owing largely to extreme denial on the part of the Reagan administration and the reluctance to acknowledge that a problem even existed.
This was homophobia at its ugliest. The mere perception that the disease was exclusive to homosexuals made the people who could have done something about it ambivalent at best. (If you’re interested in learning more about the history of AIDS, I highly recommend Randy Schilts’ excellent AND THE BAND PLAYED ON.)
Back in the ‘80s, everyone was scared because nothing was known about HIV. Today, we know it can—and does—affect anyone. But sometimes it seems that, 30 years on, we’re still as much in the dark now as we were when this was just a condition whispered about with a mixture of fear and shame. Advances in the treatment of HIV and AIDS have fostered complacency in many. A lack of strong education on the dangers of HIV—supported by those who still live with the idea that it’s strictly a “gay disease”—have seen a return of reckless sexual practices that endanger thousands of men and women—gay and straight—every day.
The shadow of HIV/AIDS hovers over WITH OR WITHOUT YOU. To be clear, it’s not a book about HIV/AIDS. I consider it a book about acceptance, belonging, and love. These are all concerns of anyone living with HIV/AIDS. These are concerns we all face. Almost daily, I remind myself to reflect on this often overlooked intersection.
There’s still much to learn. There’s still much to say. And I can’t escape the feeling that the most important fact that needs to endure is: This is not over and it does affect you.